The sky was the color of a healing bruise when we set foot on the shivering New Jersey beach. This sunset is the only time I can remember actually watching the night take hold of the horizon. Sky murmured in indigo and maroon like the tender skin of my knees. I had slipped perching on the shore rocks the day before.
The class haunts me with too much knowledge about the animals and wildlife of Stone Harbor. I recall at random the obscure names of estuary foliage, and I can distinguish the subtle differences between a sandpiper and a red knot—like the length of their tooth-pick legs and the curvature of their specialized beaks. Red knots are the shorebirds that eat horseshoe crab eggs. I find myself replaying each unnecessary detail of the current issues with shorebird reproduction. Big surprise, like always, humans are the sole cause of a population’s decline. Everyone is sorry because birds are cute, but not sorry enough to stop building boardwalks. For the majority of plovers, sandpipers, and other shorebirds, populations have decreased every year since the nineties.
Sometimes when I’m alone, I think about the horseshoe crab’s copper-based blue blood. It’s phantasmal and alien. We use their blood to clean medical equipment. The amebocyte cells in the blood find toxins and cluster around them in congealed globs of cells. Horseshoe crab blood is milked from their bodies like cows in factories—ancient legs scrambling in the grip of a conveyor belt, while the increasing pressure of a metal needle snaps through shell.
Horseshoe crabs are over four-hundred million years old. Their blood has tasted oceans without humans. Without fish hooks. Without aluminum. Without syringes. Without crumpled burger wrappers from the boardwalk.
The class was taking counts of horseshoe crabs that night because the species has been so over-fished that their populations are now closely monitored by conservation efforts. Weak, blood milked bodies are tossed back often die—unable to recuperate after the needle plunges through their chest. Horseshoe crabs have seen a ninety percent decline in populations over the last decade due to a combination of pollution, over-fishing, and lack of spawning sites.
On the beach, a conservancy worker in thigh-high rubber boots and a pony gave us each a measuring grid to lie down in the water and count the number of crabs spawning within the grid.
The class would take randomized numbers of steps that we read off a clipboard as we walked—recording numbers down ten miles of chilly star-dipped beach.
The last blush of the sun dunked over the rolls of sand. On the other side of the street rows of houses on stilts perched with lamps that looked like lighthouses trapped in terrariums.
The street waited still.
The other students walked faster than me. I was bundled in three sweaters and fingerless gloves.
My body doesn’t regulate temperature, and this May night was tinged with the remnants of winter chill. Something about the beach made my skin feel like paper that evening. I felt my body becoming less and less real. I stopped walking for a second and saw the other students in their windbreakers and black rubber boots illuminated under the full belly of the moon.
The moon. I looked up at a moon. An empty dinner plate poised among shy constellations competing with the lights of the boardwalk attractions.
I let the group walk farther and farther away from me, and listened as their voices were devoured by the rush of the lunar tides.
Horseshoe crabs follow the pull of the moon. I looked out at the whole beach for the first time that night. The whole surface was moving.
The body of a horseshoe crab reminds me of a salad bowl with a long rudder of a tail. They are so many sizes from quarters to punch bowls—all clamoring for the body of a female. The females are huge—barnacle-shelled—gnarled by salt and scratch of sand—they take wounds from men fighting over their body.
I think of the scars on my forearms from match sticks. Some people cut their wrists but my struggle with self-harm has always been with fire. There are so many ways to be hurt in water and fire and sand and stone. Standing there, I thought of my skin as cold as a horseshoe crab shell—the blue blood showing through my veins as freezing as the night water—stars still floating in each rise and fall of waves.
Male horseshoe crabs are sharp and tiny compared to the females—they’re all running away from one another on legs stolen from spiders and washed in brine.
It was also the class’s job to flip stranded horseshoe crabs over—if their long-thin rapier tails couldn’t flip them back onto their legs. Without assistance they will struggle through the night and rage till the sun boils and eats their flesh from their shells.
I flipped one over with my foot and didn’t feel like much of a savior.
I wondered why the horseshoe crabs didn’t flip each other over when they get stuck. I looked up at the rest of my class, muffled shadows in the dark. My skin glowed whiter without their collective flashlights and I turned the complexion of the moon— tinged with the blue-blood cords strung in my wrists.
I was hungry and hadn’t eaten enough that day. I still forget what horseshoe crabs eat. The gust off the ocean made my ribs into wind chimes.
I took a step forward to flip over another horseshoe crab that looked stuck. It was only the top shell—meat all rotted out by the sun and foraging gulls. I wondered if its children were spawning here, or if it got stranded and there was no human to flip it over. The waves make it hard for the crabs to hold onto each other.
I wondered what they would sound like if they could scream—would the females scream? The men? Both? I take them as a pensive type of creature that wouldn’t want to waste sound on the sensation of pain.
I picked up the shell. It was big so I could tell it was a female. Some pieces of meat lingered inside and it looked like the carcass might have been picked at by plovers because of the beak marks.
At my feet a struggling orgy of males groped the body of a female as she hauled her egg-laden body to a place to release them.
I wanted to tell her to push them off—that more than half her eggs would probably be eaten in the morning when the red knots arrived from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. Red knots have one of the largest migratory paths of any species, and they choose to nourish themselves solely on a gluttonous feast of horseshoe crab eggs spilled out under the moon.
I hunched down on my knees—crouched above the same female to touch her surface.
On the boat trip we took the day before we went dredging for microbes in the bay, the tour-guide told us that it was good luck to kiss horseshoe crabs.
I picked one up on the ship and kissed its forehead in front of the class while the other students took pictures with their iPhone. There was a photographer from the school too.
I looked at her false eyes on the top of her shell. They are to trick predators but they only ever looked like little goat horns to me. Horseshoe crabs’ real eyes line their entire body around the perimeter as well as five clustered on the tip of their head and two near their mouth.
I put my hand out for her to see and I imagined what it would be like to see the whole beach in panorama—to be jostled by waves and watch the whole world turn with you. I closed my eyes and brushed my cold fingers on her shell.
I forgot whether or not they could feel through their exoskeletons. I was tired. It was late now—past midnight.
We had gotten up early that morning around eight and toured at an oyster fishery. I didn’t really sleep the night before. I’m just as bad at sleeping as I am at eating. On the cold beach I thought about how absurd sleep was and if horse shoe crabs thought it was silly that humans wasted so much time in darkness. I wondered if they longed to sleep—to rest. I slept on average about three hours during the field research portion of the class, because I suffer from a mixture of sleep anxiety and night terrors that usually prevent me from sleeping for more than three or four hours at a time. These were agitated by the new environment and not really knowing anyone in the class.
I actually really liked the other students; I’m just the kind of person who fades into themselves easily.
I talked little outside of the lab, yet I felt more alive inside my body than I had for a long time. I talked to myself more, analyzing each inch of my skin—the ripples left by my bones. I was discovering remnants of animals tucked away in my own framework—forearms of shorebird wings—turtle toe bones.
I loathed the cold and the rain that persisted through our trip, but in retrospect I appreciate how they made me consider the sensation of touch, my skin, and my own body. I undressed at the end of each day and sat in my hotel room, alone, looking at my naked body in the full length mirror of the bathroom.
I was very thin—thinner than I should have been.
I had given up running daily in an attempt to gain weight back—stop controlling food so much—get back some sort of form of stable. There was something haunting about my own gaunt body in that mirror.
My bones moved under my moon skin like the horns of horseshoe crabs—each bone rippling like many legs in the flicker of waves refracting the moon.
Sitting on the beach sitting, I let my eyes close and my body wanted to fold and just lay on there—rest in the damp sand and sleep coiled in cold. Maybe I would grow an exoskeleton.
Horseshoe crabs don’t sleep and neither do most crustaceans.
I made a joke to myself that I was re-born as the wrong animal—that I could never sleep because I was meant to be a horse shoe crab. I touched the female crab again.
I should have been finishing the grid with the rest of the group but the lingering of the empty plate moon and the celestial body of the horseshoe crab held me there.
She reached out her tweezer claws and pinched my finger.
It didn’t hurt because horseshoe crabs have the same legs as spiders—they’re more related to arachnids than crustaceans.
I stood up and I was dizzy. When I was hunched I could pull my top layer of sweater over my knees and this kept my body warmer.
Somehow I found myself caught up with the group about an hour later.
I moved without thinking—counting the calliopes of horseshoe crab bodies in the parameters of my squares.
One boy lent me his jersey and I was a little bit warmer.
The teacher’s assistant, Anne, smiled and rubbed my shoulders. She had seen me shivering. She told me, “We were almost done, sweetie, hang in there.”
I appreciated the compassion. I know it’s infantile but I wanted someone to carry me back—I just wanted to stay there. I imagined taking on the life of a horse shoe crab—giving up trying to have warm blood.
I was too tired to actually hear how many we counted that night but that migration has on average ten thousand horseshoe crabs leaving between sixty thousand and one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand eggs.
I slept the whole way back to the hotel in the very back of the van with residual cold still heavy in my bones. My blood blue congealing all through my veins.
The next morning we watched birders from all over the world push in front of us to lend a hand clipping tags on the ankles of red knots ransacking the shoreline.
I was too sleepy think of anything other than the present image of the birds. From a distance, without my binoculars, in the blurry morning sun, the beach looked like it was moving again. The whole shore was speckled with maroon feathers and becks full of tiny orangish horseshoe crab eggs.
I sat away from the group. I sipped coffee that pulsed strangely in my eye lids. I thought of myself as the carcass of a horseshoe crab no one had flipped over. I let the sun stain my skin and pan-fry my inverted star freckles. I waited for the red knots to pick me apart too. I felt ancient. I looked down at my wrists to remind myself of the scarred exo-skeletons we share and the blue wires we both wear as veins.